Entering the modern world

Repugnance over the violent wars of the Reformation helped to usher in the modern era. But modern thought and activity would not have been possible without a rich inheritance bestowed by the high and late Middle Ages, the age of European exploration, the Renaissance, and the Reformation.

Chinese technology had traveled west along the Silk Roads until it sparked revolutionary change in Europe. The wheelbarrow, the water wheel, and the magnetic compass all came from China. So did gunpowder. So did printing. Johannes Gutenberg is credited with inventing the printing press in Europe, but he merely adapted technology already in use. Even so, the development of printing arguably allowed Martin Luther’s ideas to be transmitted more easily than those of Waldo, Wycliffe, and Huss, making Luther the hero of the Reformation.

Knowledge and wealth flowed into Europe from new trade routes along the coast of Africa and then to Asia, as well as into the Western Hemisphere. Capitalism had already developed from the medieval guilds and leagues and from Renaissance bankers, but trade and colonization opened new avenues of capital investment and profit. Scientific thought began with medieval philosophers. Galileo and Newton could not have been heroes of the early Modern Era without Nicholas of Cusa, Roger Bacon, and Nicholas Copernicus. These ingredients simmered together during the crisis years of the Reformation, yielding a stew of new thoughts and ideas that can only be described as modern.

Modern thought is characterized by confidence in the superiority of reason, belief in the objective assessment of data, expectation of a comprehensive explanation of whatever is being examined, and certainty of inevitable progress. All four of these have been challenged by post-modern thought in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; post-modern thinkers question reason, doubt that any delivery of information is untainted by subjective opinions, treat most explanations as only partial views of reality, and assess both gains and losses with every change. Modern thinkers credit science and education with the ability to improve the world and solve its problems; post-modern thinkers readily challenge science and education without assuming that they are undoubtedly right and their results will be completely beneficial.

Early modern thinkers called their time the Enlightenment. Historians reluctant to bestow such a value-laden label on those years are shifting to the term Baroque. Already used to describe music from that time (Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, and so on) and painting from that time (Rembrandt and Rubens, among others), the term Baroque provides a value-free description of the time period that begins with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and continues to the American Revolution and French Revolution of the late eighteenth century.

The first important Baroque philosopher was Rene Descartes (1596-1650). To encounter truth, Descartes began by doubting everything. He asked if he could be certain of anything, and proved to be certain of one thing—that someone, by doubting, was thinking. “I think, therefore I exist,” he concluded. But information was reaching his thinking mind; something else must exist outside of his mind. That something must have a source, a First Cause, a God who made its existence possible. Descartes insisted that any God who made the flow of information from an outside world possible must be good; he said it was unthinkable that an evil God would be playing tricks on his perception. (The Matrix movies had not yet been filmed.) Therefore, he could rely on his senses and learn about the world around him. Starting from himself and moving on to God, Descartes found himself living in a reasonable world.

Baroque philosophers generally conceded the existence of God, but they were careful not to define God. In fact, they insisted upon each individual’s right to encounter God and understand God in his or her own way. Reformation warfare soured them upon government-supported religion. As Luther had already been willing to separate Church and State, so the Baroque philosophers wanted the Church and the State to leave each other alone.

Their undefined God is often called the Deist God. Deists believe in a God who created the world and set all its rules; they do not acknowledge a God who interferes with the world and breaks his own rules. Scientists like Newton can study the world and learn the rules of its Creator. Nature always follows the rules of the Creator. His ethical or moral rules are just as important, and people should follow those rules. Among those rules, as listed by John Locke, are human rights: the right to life, to liberty, and to property. Governments exist to protect those rights. Governments cannot bestow them, and governments cannot remove them without good cause. Other Baroque philosophers wrote about a Social Contract in which some rights are surrendered to the government for the sake of society as a whole. But Baroque philosophers, for the most part, emphasized the need to limit governments, to allow them as little power as is necessary. The human individual matters more; governments should not be allowed to stifle the freedom of individual people.

Of course Baroque governments did not fall into line behind Baroque philosophers. The kings and queens of Europe were becoming more powerful than ever before. New wealth from the rest of the world and new technology made it possible to control more people and to battle more enemies. War did not cease with the Peace of Westphalia and the halt to religious wars. Nations now went to war against nations for purely political, economic, and nationalistic reasons. Although they did not receive Roman numerals, the first world wars were fought in this era. Britain and France and Spain and Prussia and Austria and Russia wrestled for dominance on the land and on the sea. English pirates sank Spanish ships and were rewarded by the crown. Louis XIV spent half the national treasury of France on luxury for himself (such as the palace of Versailles) and spent the other half at war with his neighbors. Enlightenment ideas were merely ideas at first; only later would they be tested in new forms of government, first in North America, and then, finally, in Europe.

Even among philosophers and scientists and artists, modern thought and modern methods were not universal across the culture. But the two sides of modern thought will require a separate post. J.

The social contract

All people have rights. When we all try to exercise our rights at the same time, we fall into conflict. Therefore, we make an unspoken agreement with one another. We surrender some of our rights to the government, and we give that government the power to protect our remaining rights. Which rights we surrender and which we maintain—that is the difficult question. Nations differ from one another in their answer to that question, and citizens within nations argue with each other about the answer to that question.

Like many ideas of western philosophy, the idea of the social contract has its roots in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. The idea first reached its full structure in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. All three agreed that government is a necessary evil. All three wanted to see the size and the power of the government limited. Hobbes even compared human government to the Biblical monster, Leviathan, writing that it must be tamed as much as possible, because things would be worse without it.

All people have rights. Locke summarized these rights as life, liberty, and property; in the Declaration of Independence of the United States, Thomas Jefferson rephrased the third right as “the purfuit of happineff.” (All his Ss looked like Fs—Stan Freberg.) Governments exist to protect the rights of their citizens to life, liberty, and property; they do not exist to take these rights away. Locke, and later Jefferson, said that when a government fails in this basic duty, citizens have an additional right to take power from their government and give it to a new government. Locke saw that very event happen twice, first with the end of the Puritan Commonwealth and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and later with the Glorious Revolution bringing William and Mary to power in Great Britain in 1689. Jefferson was, of course, key in seeing the same thing happen in the British colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America.

All people have a right to life, but government can deprive a murderer of life, since that person has deprived someone else of life. All people have a right to liberty, but government can put a convicted criminal in prison to protect its other citizens. All people have a right to property, but the government can take property away from some people in the form of fines if they have broken certain laws. Citizens surrender to the government the power to seek, capture, convict, and punish criminals rather than having each citizen responsible for defending his or her life, liberty, and property all the time.

In additional ways, citizens surrender liberty and property to the government for the greater good. (In times of war, some citizens even risk their lives for the good of their country.) Many people want to travel between City A and City B. If each citizen made his or her own path between the two cities, many property rights would be threatened, and the environment in general would be harmed. With the agreement of the citizens, the government claims a strip of land between the cities, giving the owners of that property due value. The government then builds a road on that strip of land. The road belongs to the government, by agreement of all the citizens. Therefore the government can charge people money to use that road, whether through tolls or through gasoline taxes or through fees paid for vehicle licenses and drivers’ licenses. Because the government owns the road, and make and enforce rules about the road, such as speed limits, stop signs, and laws against littering. Citizens agree to use the road and to obey the rules. This is how the social contract works.

In every family, parents could teach their own children; or groups of families could band together to provide private schools for their children. However, the citizens living in a town or city have an interest in seeing that all the children are in school, both to keep them out of trouble and to prepare them for useful lives in the future. Generally in the United States public schools are funded largely by property taxes. Even households without children and families which homeschool or send their children to a private school pay for the public school, because it is in everyone’s best interests to send the neighbor’s children to school. This is how the social contract works.

Taxes are a visible result of the social contract, but most political controversies also concern the social contract. Governments decide how best to protect the lives and liberty and property of all citizens. Sometimes, however, the rights of two people conflict, and the government must decide which right to protect or how to compromise the conflicting rights. Does a child’s right to life deserve more protection than the right of the child’s mother to liberty and the pursuit of happiness? If so, when does that right to life begin—at conception, at birth, at some arbitrary time between conception and birth, or perhaps a certain number of years after birth? Americans disagree with one another about the answer to that question, as do the members of the American government. Because of the social contract, the government must provide and enforce some kind of answer.

In socialism, the government owns all businesses and industries and decides how much workers will be paid and how much products will cost. Socialist governments generally charge high taxes and then provide many services for free. These can include public transportation, education, medical care, and even housing. In capitalism, private citizens own business and industries. Those private citizens decide how much workers will be paid and how much products will cost. Taxes are lower, but people must pay for things that they need and want. Even in capitalism, though, a social contract exists. Citizens trust the government to inspect factories for the safety of the workers and the quality of the products (such as food and medicine) that are produced. Citizens trust the government to regulate industries to reduce pollution, noise, and other problems. Citizens trust the government to make laws about child labor, limits on how many hours of work a worker must perform each day and week, and even minimum wage rules. Some liberty is surrendered to the government for the good of workers and of customers. People debate the details of such regulations, some wanting more and others wanting less regulation, but very few people want absolutely no regulation of privately-owned businesses and industries.

Human life requires food and shelter. To protect the right to life, should a government guarantee that every citizen has access to food and to shelter? Locke and Jefferson would have said “no,” but today American government provides unemployment compensation, food stamps and other welfare programs, and low-rent government-owned housing. Citizens object to abuses of the welfare system, but few would say it ought to be abolished. Most Americans are willing to see some of their tax money spent to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and care for the poor people who are our neighbors.

Access to health care is also necessary for human life. Since the 1960s, American citizens have debated heatedly the question of government involvement in the nation’s healthcare system. Most Americans are opposed to socialized health care in which the government owns all the hospitals, medical clinics, pharmacies, and other health care institutions. In socialized healthcare the government pays the doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health care professionals. That same government sets rates for medical procedures, making the most essential procedures available for free to those who are poor. Most Americans prefer capitalism in health care. Most Americans do not want governments to own the entire system. Most Americans want doctors and other professionals to have freedom to do their jobs in the way they think is best. Most Americans want freedom to make their own choices among doctors, hospitals, and the like. Americans disagree with one another about how much the government can control the health system through regulation. The goal of government participation in health care is to protect the right to life of poorer citizens. However, the same government participation reduces the liberty of doctors and patients, and reduces the property of citizens who must pay taxes to support the system. Discussion of what compromises should be made among these conflicting rights is part of the social contract.

On another occasion, I will write more about taxation and the social contract. J.